When is it cool to take over a ship in international waters and when is it piracy?

So here’s today’s puzzler: when is it cool to take over a ship in international waters and when is it piracy?

Captain Phillips Goes to Libya

A major American movie this year was Captain Phillips. It told the story of a brave ship captain (played by American Hero Tom Hanks) and the brave Navy SEALS who recaptured his ship off the coast of Somalia after it was hijacked by pirates who boarded it in international waters.

For more than a week, an oil tanker from somewhere floated in the Mediterranean. The tanker at one point flew a North Korean flag, but even the North Koreans have disavowed any connection. The Libyan government announced they were going to bomb the tanker “into scrap” but somehow that did not happen and the ship put to sea.

On March 17, U.S. Navy SEALS boarded the ship in international waters and seized it. Supposedly no shots were fired, and American Sailors took control of the ship and are sailing it back to Libya. No word on what happened to the “pirates” aboard. The “pirates” were “Libyan rebels” who were seeking “the black market.”

The funny part is that the pirates/rebels, under their militia leader Ibrahim Jadran, had been recruited by the Libyan government to guard crucial oil ports. But eight months ago, they instead seized them, blocked some oil exports, and demanded shared revenues for their eastern region where most of the oil originates. Jadran, for his part, says the Libyan government is corrupt and unfit to rule.

So Why the U.S.?

Why did the U.S. do this? Grab a ship full of oil in international waters?

The oil belongs “to the Libyan National Oil Company and its joint venture partners,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained. Those partners included some U.S. companies, which one guesses is the connection to the United States here. Supposedly the Libyan and for some reason the Cypriote governments requested the U.S. to do all this out in international waters.

Psaki also said “Any oil sales without authorization from these parties places purchasers at risk of exposure to civil liability, penalties and other possible sanctions.” This would presumably involve someone suing the pirates for something. The image of lawyers parachuting in with the SEAL team is amusing.

Also, per the New York Times, “the American intervention is a salvation to the fragile transitional government in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, which would have faced the loss of its main source of revenue and its sole source of political power if renegade militias succeeded in selling Libya’s oil.”

Libya has seen its oil exports shrink to just 12.5 percent of its output since U.S. led bombing campaign that led to the death of longtime leader Qaddafi. Oops.

Iraq Redux

So, as a status check, here we are in late Winter 2014: shilling for American oil companies with the SEALS while trying to prop up a crappy U.S. puppet government in a country the U.S. helped turn from stability to chaos. Now, this is payback, or more like rent due: after making the same promises for Iraq and seeing those fall through, the USG is now showing it is indeed a government of its word.

P.S. Denizens of the internet: I get it that the Somali’s boarded Captain Phillips’ ship to steal it, and the SEALS boarded the Libyan tanker to steal it back. The point here is to examine the use of military power for the sleaziest of purposes while trying to bathe it all in the perfume of truth, righteousness and the American Way. Otherwise, please enjoy commenting.

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Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well, and writes about current events at his blog. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent is available now for preorder from Amazon.